I read Manalive by G.K. Chesterton for the first time last week, and recognized in it a theme that has been on my mind lately. A character says of the protagonist, Innocent Smith
It is just because he does not want to steal, because he does not covet his neighbour's goods, that he has captured the trick (oh, how we all long for it!), the trick of coveting his own goods. It is just because he does not want to commit adultery that he achieves the romance of sex; it is just because he loves one wife that he has a hundred honeymoons.
It occurred to me that this is a wonderful description of gratitude. Innocent Smith has “captured the trick…of coveting his own goods,” and it has obviously made him happy, if unconventional.
Popular culture is fond of linking gratitude with happiness. We’re often told to cultivate an “attitude of gratitude” and to remember that “life is a gift.” For some reason, as much as these adages appeal, they can feel meaningless when life is particularly challenging; when we are ill, bereaved, in pain, depressed, or struggling with despair. What does it mean to say that “life is a gift”? How can it be a gift when it is so painful—when we have days when we’d like to throw a ‘return to sender’ label on the whole part and parcel and ship it back to the Giver?
The heartbroken lover does not feel grateful for music when it seems that every song is a love song; the barren couple struggles to find joy in the pregnancies and births of their friends and family. Somehow, in those days and months when we most need comfort, we are least able to grasp and live the ‘attitude of gratitude’ that we are told will bring back the hope that seems so distant and unreal.
Why is this? I think that, in part, it is because pain draws us into ourselves; there is no one so unthinkingly solipsistic as the despairing suicide. Everything around us seems to speak to us in a particular way; it is all conspiring against us, and nothing can have meaning if it doesn’t somehow divert or distract us from our pain. The world beyond our own experience is robbed of any value, robbed even of any reality.
In the face of this self-orientation, it is no comfort to be told that life is a gift. We know it is a ‘gift’, but it is one forced on us against our will—it is a cruel prank, like unwrapping layers of paper and boxes to find a potato under all of the gaudy trappings of a birthday present. There’s no comfort in believing that everything around us was meant for us, in particular, if it seems to be of no use to us, if it seems to be so much less than what we’d hoped for for ourselves.
Gratitude wasn’t an innate gift of Innocent’s either. The backstory reveals that he was deep in despair as a young man and unsure of the value of his own life, let alone any other. It was only through forcing a confrontation between nihilism and the deep human desire to live that Innocent came to the conclusion that there is only one proper response to creation: wonder and joy:
Don't tell me I confuse enjoyment of existence with the Will to Live! That's German, and German is High Dutch, and High Dutch is Double Dutch. The thing I saw shining in your eyes when you dangled on that bridge was enjoyment of life, not "the Will to Live." What you knew when you sat on that damned gargoyle was that the world, when all is said and done, is a wonderful and beautiful place; I know it, because I knew it at the same minute. I saw the gray clouds turn pink, and the little gilt clock in the crack between the houses. It was those things you hated leaving, not Life, whatever that is.
I think that this is the truth that must first be embraced before it is possible to properly adopt the “attitude of gratitude.” It seems to me that while life itself is a gift, the world is not a gift in the typical sense. In the Biblical account, God did not first create man, and then create the world for man. No, God created the earth, the sea, the fish and birds and all of the creatures of the earth—and they were GOOD. Before Adam or Eve was, the world was. Before man came to enjoy the earth, the earth was good in God’s sight.
So it seems to me that gratitude—whether for the first snow of the winter, or for the people who cross our paths each day—springs first and foremost from the intuition (or learned appreciation) that all of this that IS, is not firstly ‘for us.’ Each man, woman, and child we encounter exists for their own sake. The proper and just response to this miracle of being is not contingent on the use we derive from the people and creatures around us; the proper and just response to the existence of a tree is to rejoice that there can be a tree, whether or not it provides shade when we want shade. This response is even more marked when it comes to other persons; it is a central truth of Christian personalism, as expressed by Karol Wojtyla in Love and Responsibility. “The person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.” Love springs from recognizing the innate good of another person, which calls for a response from us. In loving others, as in rejoicing in Creation, we give them their due.
The answer to the solipsism of despair is the broadness of perspective: each soul I pass possesses his existence, which I can never fully know; each person exists as wholly and entirely for her own sake as I do for mine. Rather than shrinking the meaning and significance of each person’s “I,” this realization enlarges it, for if I am bound to respond to the existence of each and every other person with joy, than am I not even more bound to rejoice in my own existence?
It’s a platitude nowadays to say that we must love ourselves before we love others, but my own experience has been rather that love of others is the practice ground where we learn our own worth. “Man…cannot truly find himself except through a sincere gift of self” (Gaudium et Spes, 24). We need not be as eccentric as Innocent Smith to give ourselves in response to the good of the people and world around us, but we do perhaps need to see the good of the world and people around us with a bit of his clarity to better learn the lessons of love, joy, and gratitude.